Pete Prevost - courtesy of Eric Brown Photography
BriarWorks is a company dedicated to producing very high-quality pipes at affordable prices. Those are not easily combined elements, and it took enormous effort and expertise to achieve that goal.
It was an idea that had been evolving for years in the mind of Todd Johnson, a world-class pipe maker who is accustomed to making ideas reality. Always artistic, he achieved a Master of Arts degree from Yale University and found himself drawn to pipe making, studying the intricacies of the craft with Tom Eltang and with Lars Ivarsson. There was terrific demand for great looking and performing smoking instruments, more than he as an individual artisan could fulfill. And there was a need for more affordability in these high-quality pipes. Maybe it was possible to achieve both.
Todd contacted Pete Prevost, another enormously talented carver. Todd had helped Pete develop his own carving skills, inviting him to his workshop and offering instruction in artisan pipe making. When Todd decided to pursue the establishment of a workshop dedicated to reasonably priced, near-artisan level pipes, he asked Pete to be part of the enterprise, and together they started moving toward that goal.
Pete had also learned from Jody Davis. Both live in Nashville and are musicians, Jody with the band the Newsboys and Pete at the time with the band Sanctus Real, so they had music in common as well as pipe making. Pete was still touring with his band while making pipes part time, but Todd's project seemed bold and challenging, and was impossible for him to resist. "So that's where I left the band and came off the road and started on this project with Todd," says Pete.
"The goal," says Todd, "has always been to produce the highest-quality serial-produced pipes that have ever been made, and in a way that is far more technologically advanced and consistent than has ever been possible before. And the variety of shapes that we wanted to produce on a machine were simply never possible, given the 19th-century technology that large-scale production pipe manufacturers have been using." That meant throwing away customary strategies and starting from the beginning with a new, modernist approach.
"It seemed like all the factories in the U.S. had moved on or gone away," says Pete. "And it seemed like something that this market really needed, so that's what we started. That was September of 2013; we officially started the company as BriarWorks and got to work building our first machine so we could produce pipes, not with pre-cut bowls or anything like that, but actually ordering pallets of Briar and cutting our own designs with our own equipment."
The equipment necessary for such an enterprise had not been invented, and it was a challenge just to figure out how to do what they wanted. "Nothing existed for this purpose," says Todd. "So every fixture, every gauge, every single thing that was required to produce pipes the way that we wanted had to be designed, engineered and built, mainly by us." It meant the use of CNC equipment. CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control, and CNC machining refers to a manufacturing process for which computer software controls the processes of machinery and factory tools.
BriarWorks Factory - Courtesy of Eric Brown Photography
"We went to, I don't know, a dozen different folks who are intimately familiar with CNC machining," says Todd. "And we stumped every one of them. So ultimately, Pete and I built our first machine with our own hands."
"The first machine was a little bit crude, but it worked, it got us started," says Pete. "We learned a lot from that first machine, and we learned a lot of things that we shouldn't have done. And then about a year later we decided we needed to upgrade, and we built a new system. And then a third, which is where we are now. All of them did the same type of function but as we grew and changed the machines, they got a little bit more advanced each time. Now we can load a block in the machine and run a program that we write code for. And when that program is finished, it is a fully shaped and drilled stummel."
The goal has always been to produce the highest-quality serial-produced pipes that have ever been made, and in a way that is far more technologically advanced and consistent than has ever been possible before. - Todd Johnson
The machine shaping of a pipe saves a great deal of time, and when that is combined with the artisan finishing of that pipe, high quality and excellent smoking characteristics are possible that have not been generally available in factory production. But for BriarWorks to attain the full shaping of a pipe by machine was an arduous journey.
Traditional factories often use fraising machines, which work similarly to key-copying machines. A metal model is traced while a grinder shapes a block of briar, copying that shape. Fraising machines leave briar that still needs to be trimmed, and they require lots of handwork to bring that stummel to its final shape, after which the finishing process is started. To keep prices down in most factory environments, the finishing aspect is streamlined and not at the level of artisan finishing. BriarWorks developed a shaping machine that fully shapes the stummels, leaving more time for the finishing and hand-engineering of a pipe to be held to high standards.
"One of the key factors," says Todd, "is the surface finish. Traditional fraising machines produce stummels that look like they've been cut with a chainsaw, and that was never going to work for us. Surface finish was a prize we were chasing for several years."
They needed machining that would produce stummels ready to be sanded at 400 grit, saving all the shaping and sanding that leads to that step. "And our initial runs were already vastly superior to anything done with a fraising machine," says Todd. "But our goal was to create stummels that are already drilled and that have a surface finish, that only require sanding with 400 grit paper, which is the final grit that we all use in pipe making. There are some guys who sand up to, whatever, 30,000 grit and blah, blah, blah. But then they buff with 400 grit compound, so what's the point?"
Nothing existed for this purpose, so every fixture, every gauge, every single thing that was required to produce pipes the way that we wanted had to be designed, engineered and built, mainly by us. - Todd Johnson
The most important next step was to find people to finish these pipes, which requires experience and skill. Todd and Pete at first thought they could train anyone with an interest and was a good fit for their company. "What we quickly realized, after about a year," says Pete, "was we couldn't hire just anybody. We needed people who really understood the importance of all the details of a pipe and could recognize the quality needed. And our bar was set high, which didn't work with non-pipe makers. So we thought, 'Well, we really need to get some other pipe makers involved if we're going to do this at the quality level that we want.'"
Pete Prevost Shaping - Courtesy of Eric Brown Photography
They didn't need factory workers; they needed artisan craftsmen. Their enthusiasm for the project was infectious and they were able to convince pipe makers Micah Redmond, Sam Adebayo and Bill Shalosky to move to Nashville. These were already very real, very talented artisan pipe makers with reputations and followings of their own, with years upon years of combined experience, and miraculously, they were willing. "I think we all want to be a part of something that is meaningful," says Todd. This was important work that they all recognized could benefit pipe smokers everywhere.
"To produce pipes that are very affordable," says Todd, "but with a quality of design, fit, finish, and engineering unseen in factory pipes, that's an exciting notion for folks that care about pipes as more than just a commodity. I mean, for me, pipe making orders my life; it's the window through which I see the world. It might sound silly but making pipes for me is not appreciably different than raising kids. I mean, you take something and you care for it and you nurture it and you put all that you have into it. And then you send it out into the world to have its own life and you just hope that you've done everything that you can for it to be successful. So, when pipes are more than just a commodity, people will put their whole selves into the process of creating them in a beautiful way."
We needed people who really understood the importance of all the details of a pipe and could recognize the quality needed...So we thought, 'Well, we really need to get some other pipe makers involved if we're going to do this at the quality level that we want.' - Pete Prevost
There were additional benefits that attracted these world-class pipe makers. "We probably have the best equipped pipe making shop on the planet," says Todd, "though maybe Tom Eltang's shop is its equal. I think at one time, Tom and I were toe to toe for who could collect more lathes. But here, the pipe makers have full access to all of that stuff for their own handmade pipes."
"It's great for carvers," says Pete. "You've got this great shop, great tooling, lathes, all the equipment that you need and a great space to work in. And so the perks of being a pipe maker at BriarWorks is you also have a shop space and your own area to work in after hours or weekends so that you can produce your own handmade pipes. We all work together during the day, but then a lot of times when we're prepping for a pipe show or something coming up, we end up working in the shop together after hours, too. We're all very close and I think that the little community that we have in our shop is why we've all stuck together as the same crew for so long. The talent that we have in the shop is remarkable, and sometimes I can't believe how well it all worked out with the right people.
"That was the real beginning," says Pete. "It didn't feel like BriarWorks before our group of pipe makers. We'd been scrambling before; I was doing most of the production myself, it was just crazy. So we really started building something at that point, around early 2015. And again, our primary focus was to just make an affordable pipe that was of really high quality, that looked and smoked like a nice handmade pipe, but at a fraction of the cost for the consumer. And I feel like we really started to accomplish that and really started to build something."
The briar machining was essential, and they went through three generations of machinery as they developed the necessary processes. But it wasn't the stummels alone that needed to be of such high quality; stems are arguably of equal importance. For the right stems, again, Todd and Pete went through a lot to achieve what they wanted.
You've got this great shop, great tooling, lathes, all the equipment that you need and a great space to work in. And so one of the perks of being a pipe maker at BriarWorks is you also have a shop space and your own area to work in after hours or weekends so that you can produce your own handmade pipes. - Pete Prevost
"We needed stems that technically rivaled the best handmade mouthpieces," says Todd. In 2013, they went to Italy to find a manufacturer able to make such mouthpieces. "We sat down with the major manufacturer of acrylic pipe mouthpieces," says Todd, "and we hammered out what we required, what we wanted, what we needed, and that included crisp edges, no rounded buttons. They had to be thin. We had to be able to open them up in a fluted pattern for good airflow, so that it's not just a single hole running straight through."
Briar Blocks at BriarWorks - Courtesy of Eric Brown Photography
Numerous technical aspects presented themselves, problems that Pete and Todd had to engineer for the manufacturer. They developed the ways for a manufacturer to make stems according to their requirements. "Basically," says Todd, "we had to tell them, do this step first, do this step second, do this step third. Don't skip the fourth step. And then we also need this, and that, and that. So, the mouthpieces are more expensive than anything that you would find off the shelf. But again, we were creating mouthpieces of a quality that had only ever been seen on handmade pipes before. And there's a lot of math involved too. You can't have 15 different lengths of the same mouthpiece. So, we're looking at ratios and proportions, and trying to figure out if we're going to do two lengths or three lengths, this needs to be the short length, this is the medium, this is the long. And then, we're scaling the length of the stummel to fit at least two of those, if that makes sense. I mean, it's not as simple as just going through a catalog and saying, 'I'll take 1000 of number 12 and 1500 of number four' and so forth."
Even with all that manufacturing cooperation, the stems begin with less final finishing than normal production stems. Production stems are tumble sandblasted to make them easy to buff, but that tumbling rounds the elements of a mouthpiece, compromising the crisp edging of its lines and lip button. So these manufactured mouthpieces require more finishing work, but they retain the crisp edging that is otherwise found only in hand cut stems.
The mouthpieces are more expensive than anything that you would find off the shelf. But again, we were creating mouthpieces of a quality that had only ever been seen on handmade pipes before. - Todd Johnson
The stems of BriarWorks' pipes are acrylic only; vulcanite stems don't respond well to the type of machining they use. "They're sanded using a proprietary technique that is fast," says Todd, "but it doesn't work on ebonite, only on acrylic." But BriarWorks hopes to develop ebonite stems for the future.
Tenons for those stems were an additional problem, and they decided upon Teflon rather than Delrin. However, Teflon is very difficult to work with. It can't be machined; it requires hand work. And the tenons are available in only one length. "We actually looked at mass producing tenons ourselves to send to the manufacturer to have installed," says Todd, "tenons that are the lengths that we want." But it was a cost-prohibitive process, so BriarWorks artisans manually trim each tenon to the appropriate length. The mouthpieces are re-drilled with tapered, four-millimeter bits, and the tenons are chamfered and countersunk in the mortise. These pipes possess an attention to detail typically found only on handmade pipes.
Saddle Storage at BriarWorks - Courtesy of Eric Brown Photography
"We've devised myriad widgets for all of this," says Todd. "They're what in lean manufacturing are called poka-yokes, which are just processes to find a way around things; in short, idiot-proofing. They're processes that are simple, very low tech, cheap, and they keep you from having to measure or tweak or whatever. It's the equivalent of a hard stop on a lathe. You turn to the left until you hit something solid, and then you know it's the right length, that sort of thing. So, we have more poka-yokes in our processes than you could possibly imagine. And it's all just down to the creativity and the engineering skill of those of us who created the processes and those who now continue to improve upon them. The machinery is not the secret sauce; people and the skill set that they bring, that's the secret sauce."
In fact, the machinery aspect of BriarWorks merely provides more time for the pipe makers to spend on all the aspects of a pipe beyond the shaping. "A pipe starts on the machine so that we can have the consistency and the shaping and the drilling," says Pete. "But then from that point, one of the pipe makers, one of the four of us, will take that pipe from that point all the way until it's fully completed and go through all the steps. There's a lot of attention to detail that way, and it really does come off more like that pipe was individually crafted by one pipe maker."
A pipe starts on the machine so that we can have the consistency and the shaping and the drilling, but then from that point, one of the pipe makers, one of the four of us, will take that pipe from that point all the way until it's fully completed and go through all the steps. - Pete Prevost
In 2016, Todd had achieved his vision for BriarWorks and stepped away from day-to-day operations to concentrate on his handmade pipes, though he retains an ownership stake in the company. "I'm still enjoying the benefits of it because I can sit in my empty shop by myself and know that I am largely responsible for revolutionizing the thing that I care most about in the world, outside of my wife and children. And that to me is the benefit of it." For Todd, BriarWorks was never about making money, though it needed to be self-sufficient. "It was about doing the thing. And when I did the thing, there wasn't much left for me to achieve."
Pete became president of the company and responsible for operations. "This idea from the start was Todd's" says Pete, "and he deserves credit for getting it all going. We've grown as a different sort of company since he left, with Bill, Sam, Micah and me. After I took over, though, I started to feel like we were missing an important component. What we were missing was a retail presence."
BriarWorks at that time was a workshop located in an industrial garage building, but they were getting frequent requests for factory tours and inquiries about purchasing pipes during those visits. "I started to look around the area; Nashville had gotten really expensive and there were already a lot of great pipe and cigar lounges. So I looked further South, and about 45 minutes away was a town called Columbia. Columbia is a great historic community; it's a great little town that's seeing a very cool rebirth right now."
BriarWorks Lounge - Courtesy of Eric Brown Photography
Pete found a remarkable, historic building on Main Street in downtown Columbia. "It was built in the '40s; it's a really cool old warehouse, a factory-type building." They moved the operation in 2017, and in 2018 opened their own retail store. "We initially set it up as a little storefront for our pipes. Well, you know how that goes; the idea grew. And next thing you know, we've got a really nice walk-in humidor with a large cigar selection, a wall of pipe tobacco tins, a bunch of bulk tobacco, our pipes, and beer on tap. It turned into a cool hangout, and the pipe and cigar lounge is open seven days a week. Now we have this destination spot where people can travel and see our place."
They needed someone to run the wholesale side of the business and manage all the aspects of distributing the pipes made, and they found the perfect person in Brad Emery, who worked at UpTown's Smoke Shop in Nashville and its parent company, Music City Marketing, for many years. He was there in the mid-'90s when UpTown's was so instrumental in importing pipes by such carvers as Bo Nordh, Jess Chonowitsch, and S. Bang, who were not particularly well known in the US. before.
BriarWorks also hosts its own pipe show in the factory every year, the Muletown Pipe Show, originally slated this year for September 4-6, but now cancelled, as so many other shows have been cancelled in 2020. "Both the retail shop and the pipe show have really helped us grow," says Pete. "We've learned a lot and we've been able to connect with customers directly a lot more. It's the best move we ever made as a company. We've seen so much growth in the past two years since we made the move to Columbia and opened up to the public."
BriarWorks is making about 5,000 pipes a year, and intends to stay close to that number. Rather than increasing output, the pipe makers decided to concentrate on quality and to really see just how good they can make serial-produced pipes with artisan finishing at this scale. They continue to improve the small details that increase the performance of a pipe, and they do it with the dedication of artisan pipe makers, a dedication that benefits everyone.
Muletown Pipe Show - 2019 - courtesy of Eric Brown Photography
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